By Oliver Matthews
Harare, Apr 21 (efe-epa).- Already crippled by a crumbling economy and food shortages, the coronavirus pandemic has now added another stressor as Zimbabwe battles to stay afloat and contain the spread of Covid-19.
Once known as the jewel of Africa because of its prosperity, since 2000 the southern African country has been plunged into a deep crisis after the government launched a controversial land redistribution program.
Then-President Robert Mugabe confiscated the farms that were owned by some 4,000 white farmers and transferred them to tens of thousands of black farmers, triggering an economic crisis that still weighs the country down to this day.
In the past decade, Zimbabwe has been suffocated by hyperinflation, with the most recent figures showing that inflation in the country had reached 676.3 percent in March, up from 540.15 percent in the previous month, according to Zimstat.
The World Bank estimates about six million Zimbabweans, 34 percent of the population, live in conditions of extreme poverty, while more than seven million people, half of the total population, suffer from food insecurity, according to the UN World Food Program (WFP), which this month demanded urgent aid of $130 million for food supplies to last August.
“With most Zimbabweans already struggling to put food on the table, the COVID pandemic risks even wider and deeper desperation,” said WFP Zimbabwe Director Eddie Rowe.
“We must all do our utmost to prevent this tragedy turning into a catastrophe,” Rowe added.
To contain the spread of the coronavirus, president Emmerson Mnangagwa imposed a 21-day lockdown on March 30.
The measures were extended on April 19 for two more weeks and have resulted in the closure of informal markets, banks and most businesses, a move that has aggravated an already precarious economic outlook.
“We were in trouble long before coronavirus happened, so to add trouble to existing troubles means we’re in a very bad way,” Harare-based economist John Robertston tells Efe.
“I don’t know how long it will take before people start starving to death under these conditions,” the economist adds.
With an unemployment rate of 80 percent, many urban families get by by selling vegetables, welding materials and making baskets in places like the Mupedzanhamo flea market in Mbare, Harare’s oldest slum.
Despite orders from the authorities, many Zimbabweans are forced to breach the lockdown to survive.
“A lot of people are coming out, not because they are defying the government but because they want food, they want water,” Precious Shumba, director of the independent Harare Residents Trust, tells Efe.
He said a poor water supply network weighed down by years of mismanagement and decline means that in many low-income suburbs residents throng the few working public water supply points.
“The majority have disregarded the social distancing requirements,” Shumba adds.
To date, Zimbabwe has confirmed 25 coronavirus infections and three deaths, but it has only carried out just over 2,850 tests and fears are growing that the disease is spreading undetected.
The vulnerable public health system, further weakened by a doctors and nurses strike last year over the shortage of materials and basic medicines, cannot handle a health crisis like the ones that countries like Spain, Italy or the United States are grappling with.
The Zimbabwe Physicians Association for Human Rights went to the Harare High Court to obtain an order requiring the government to do door-to-door tests and to provide protective suits for health workers.